Sometimes They Write Back

When my first book, Other Fish in the Sea, was released back in 2003, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram didn’t exist. There was no social media platform on which to display its pretty cover. No place where I could announce, HEY, I PUBLISHED A BOOK, or show off any positive reviews.

Additionally, this lack of connectivity meant that readers had no easy way of letting their friends (or me) know if they even liked (or hated) the book. Because my tech-savvy friend, Igor, built me a rudimentary website, I got to hear from a few of my fans.

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My first ever email about the book was from someone named Teri, and oh but it was a juicy one:

Dear Lisa,

Well…I am so glad you have a web site.  What a thrill.  I’ve never written an author before, but here I am. There I was, browsing in the library, trying to get over my “affair” with a married man, who I didn’t know was a married man  and didn’t know I had been having an “affair” until after we had been together for a year, and I spied your book….”Other fish in the sea”…yes, that’s what I wanted….something to distract me and keep me from calling him, but….getting into the book…and yes, I admit, I couldn’t put it down…there I was in Seattle…where of course, my guy lived … (I am from Portland…which I suppose accounts for the fact that I didn’t know he was otherwise engaged since I only saw him when he came down to visit…every weekend, I might add for the first 6 months) and I was pitched back into my real life.Just

Anyway, what I really wanted to tell you (and I’m so glad you have a website where I can reach out to you) is that I loved your book. You are a fabulous writer. 

I could quote you endless paragraphs where you touched my heart. You have such a handle on seeing life as so many people do, but rarely notice. (Or maybe that’s just me). Or maybe, that we notice, but don’t think other people think the same little things are as important as we do. I’ve never felt compelled to write to an author before, but I just hope you do keep writing. Your book is great. I feel your destiny is big. But I’m sure you already have it, and already know this.

Thank you for this opportunity to tell you.  Your book is inspiring. If you are ever in Portland signing your books at Powell’s or whatever… I’d love to tell you in person. I’m nobody important, but just a regular woman who so appreciates your take on the world. Thanks for sharing it with me.

Your friend,
Teri  

realy

I printed it out and framed the words of this supposedly unimportant regular woman. They meant the world to me.

###

A few years later, I received this letter from a young woman in the Philippines:

Hi Lisa,

Hope you are well as you read this email. 

I have never heard of you before or of your work, but when I saw “Other Fish in the Sea” in a bookstore, I picked it up because the title intrigued me.

I have just finished reading it – in one sitting when I was sick and therefore not at work – and I loved it. I especially liked the wit of “SWM” and the ambiguity and surrealism of the “Other Fish in the Sea.”

And the last story ended on such a hopeful note which made it satisfying because I was starting to get worried that I might end up like Elly – forever searching for love.  J 

I searched you online and got your email from your website. I just wanted to write and tell you how much I enjoyed your book. Being a “budding” writer of short fiction and a bit of poetry myself, I imagine it would be fun for me to receive such feedback about my work. I’m from the Philippines and it’s sad that, often, only fellow writers read fiction produced by writers in the Philippines.

That’s all. Hope that I get to read more of your work. May God bless you! 

Sincerely,
Ilia
(Metro Manila, Philippines)

To think that someone went out of their way to find my email address, then take the time to write me, touched me to no end.

Naturally, I wrote her back. (I wrote EVERYONE back!)

###

Flash forward to 2008. By then, everyone and their sister had a blog. One day I came across Ilia’s blog. It was mostly about writing. But there was one particular post that struck me…

SOMETIMES THEY WRITE BACK

I was supposed to write something about punctuations today. But reading one of Neil Gaiman’s tweets changed my mind. He twittered a link to his assistant’s blog where she wrote about how she spends her day as his assistant. Reading that eventually led me to her post on what not to send your favorite writer. And that switched a lightbulb in my brain and gave me an idea for today’s post. 

So after Rem’s rather “heavy” post, I will now attempt to write something lighter and proceed to tell you of the one and only time I ever wrote a writer I liked.

There’s this stall (if you can call it that) right after the EDSA entrance to Star Mall and I often pass by it to look for good finds AKA quality books at cheap prices. It was there that a book called “Other Fish in the Sea” by Lisa Kusel wouldn’t leave me alone until I picked it up. So even if it wasn’t in the most perfect condition – there were creases and stains – I bought it.

It was a short story collection featuring one main character named Elly who gets herself in all sorts of relationships – set in various locations and at progressing stages of her life. I usually buy books of short stories to help me learn more about the genre but I rarely read all the stories in one book – because it gets kind of tedious “hearing” the same voice in a series of stories. But this time – I read all of the stories in that book.

I believe in the Chinese proverb: The teacher comes when the student is ready. I really appreciated “Other Fish in the Sea” because I think it came to me at the right time in my life and it gave me hope. The stories inhabited my brain for several days and the longer they stayed, the more I enjoyed them. 

So browsing over the book, I noticed it mentioned a website. The next day, I checked out the URL and the website did exist and had an email link. So I said to myself, why not? Why not email her and tell her how much I enjoyed her stories? I knew it would be a long shot but I really didn’t have anything to lose. Plus, if I were in her shoes, I’d want to hear from people who enjoyed my work. [Yes, we would. Always.]

A month passed and I didn’t get any reply. Soon, I sort of forgot that I ever wrote her. Then one day, I came into the office, turned on my computer, opened my email inbox and there it was – a reply from her. I let out a squeal of glee and received varied looks of confusion and annoyance from my colleagues.

Now I share to you what she wrote me. Here is part of her email to me:

Ilia, what a lovely lovely surprise, finding your letter among the scores of business-y and spam-y emails in my inbox. You completely made my day with your words. Thank you for that.

And for reading OFITS. I am so proud of those stories; thrilled that women everywhere find parts of themselves in Elly.

…Until then, I wish you all the luck in the world with your own writing–poetry, fiction, any words that paint pictures for yourself, for others–it’s all such a wonderful art, no? Practice all the time. Get frustrated. Be easy on yourself, though. Enjoy every moment of your own creations and eventually others will too, if that’s your goal.

all my best to you today and always,  lisa kusel [I’m sure I said lots more, but I don’t have the email I sent her.]

And really, that totally made my day. I know that writers answering fan mail is not exactly unheard of but having never tried anything like that before, receiving a response was glorious.

It’s amazing how technology has made it so easy to communicate with people from the opposite side of the globe. Now if only I weren’t too shy to approach Filipino writers when I get happen to be in the same room with them. Ha-ha.

Just remembering that made me excited all over again. I hope I get the chance to pass on the favor someday.

It is amazing how technology has changed the way we communicate. Nowadays, there are countless channels by which to reach out to authors. Since Rash, my third book, was published, people from all over the world have written to me, IM’d me, friended me on FB, and followed me on Instagram. I treasure what each and every person has said about the book. And yes, I still write back to all of them.

And then last week it was my turn: I finished reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer and was so overcome by the love I felt for the book that I wrote the author on Twitter, never for a moment expecting a reply. I mean, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author taking the time to answer my small tweet? No way.

But guess what? Sometimes they do write back.

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And, just like Ilia said, receiving that response was indeed glorious.

 

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FIREFLY

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Photo by Radim Schreiber / FireflyExperience.org

Last Saturday I awoke with a nasty bellyache, a sharp throbbing pain in the middle of my gut. No matter what I tried, it would not abate. I contorted my body into yoga poses. Drank bubbly water mixed with apple cider vinegar. Sucked on fennel seeds. Sipped peppermint tea. Finally, I gave in and gagged down four TUMS. All to no avail. After an hour of grimacing, I took to my bed and found that if I lay on my right side and tucked my left leg up by my chest, the pain diminished significantly. But only if I stayed in that exact position.

Needing a diversion, I extended my left arm backwards and grabbed a random book from the messy pile on my night table. My hand retrieved “Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood,” written by Jamie Sumner.

I groaned. I kinda sorta didn’t want to read it. I wanted something FUN, something LIGHT, something maybe a little IMMORAL or IRREVERENT to distract me from my discomfort; not a  book about GOD and INFERTILITY. As I again reached backwards toward the jumble of books, a voice in my head shouted, “Lisa! Think about all the shit you’ve been going through and the fact that this woman in Tennessee, a woman you’ve never even met, has been so supportive. And lest you forget: she wrote an amazing review of your book. She mailed you her book because she wants you to read it, you idiot. Don’t be such a selfish jerk.”

I opened the book.

cover

Last year, in an effort to promote my new book, “Rash, A Memoir,” I asked some fellow writers in a private Facebook group if anyone would be willing to read and review it. Jamie Sumner was the first person to volunteer.

After she received the book she emailed me: “The cover is so COOL. It makes me want to scratch at the surface. Literally. What would Bali and angst smell like if we made it Scratch N’  Sniff?” This, naturally, endeared me to her.

After she published a remarkably flattering review of my book on her blog, I wrote to thank her and, soon enough, we began emailing one another. We shared a few personal stories, but mostly, we discussed the world of publishing. Things like how difficult it is to find the right agent. The niggling self-doubts that often accompany the writing life. Nothing too deep or needy. But when my agent sent me a curt email containing three rejections of my latest novel, I forwarded it to Jamie, along with a some pathetic whining.

I instantly regretted it and sent an apology letter, admitting that I have ADHD and sometimes over-share my woes onto unsuspecting listeners. I didn’t want our new friendship to veer into overwhelming intimacy, and offered to back off.

Jamie refused to let me withdraw: “We are both not just here for advice, but for support in all the things that make us human. I will take anything you can throw at me. You are lovely, in all your ADHD glory. I was reading Anne Lamott’s ‘Operating Instruction’ and came across this: ‘I tell my writing students to get into the habit of calling one another, because writing is such a lonely, scary business, and if you’re not careful, you can trip off into this Edgar Allan Poe feeling of otherness.’ Let’s keep each other from the otherness. I think that’s why we met.”

It wasn’t until after this exchange that Jamie let on that she had a book of her own coming out.

“That’s fantastic,” I said, thinking I would be first in line to offer to review it. “What is it about?”

“The book is about motherhood and all the expectations met and unmet,” she wrote. “It’s a faith-based memoir of sorts with a hefty dose of sass because I can’t handle the Christian books that read like they should be written in cursive or made into a Hallmark movie.”

A Christian book? She wrote a Christian book?

While I knew from our emails that Jamie had a bit of a religious disposition, I was rattled by the  disclosed weight of it. I hadn’t realized what a true blue, God-fearing, Bible-toting, commandment-following, Christian she truly was.

As opposed to me: a Buddhist-curious, commandment-breaking, non-believer.

Before I could throw the proverbial baby out with the holy bath water, I decided to keep an open mind. As a constant seeker of truth and knowledge; someone who meditates and strives to be a more compassionate person, I knew it shouldn’t matter that our spiritual paths resembled a Y in the road with huge gap between. We made each other laugh, and I got the sense that she didn’t care that I slept in on Sundays instead of communing with God. (Though I did tread carefully with my emails, backspacing whenever I accidently took the Lord’s name in any form approaching vain.)

Besides which, Jamie made me feel safe, listened to—enough so that by this point in our virtual friendship, I opened up more of my own personal drawers and admitted that I was struggling with my mother, who had been recently diagnosed with dementia. In fact, I was flying down to  Florida in a few days to move her into a memory care facility.

I wrote to Jamie from Florida and detailed some of the not-so-fun challenges I was facing. The sadness and loss that were weighing heavy on my heart.

“I am tired for you,” she replied, “which does not change the situation one bit, but might make you feel better. I love you and I’ll be shooting prayers into the sky like arrows.”

Having someone pray for me was an entirely new experience, but I liked it. I pictured this smart pretty woman with her eyes closed, asking an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing Being she worships to throw a little extra love in my direction. The image of her prayer arrows, like bursts of light flashing across the skies, comforted me more than I ever could have imagined.

Which is why I nicknamed her

Fireflyopeninglogo

“Unbound” is listed under the Christian Books and Bibles category on Amazon. I knew from the description that Jamie would be perching her personal saga alongside Biblical females, and I was ready for those snippets of Scripture to detract from, or even derail, my interest in the central story. Still, I was determined to at least read a few chapters, for the sake of our friendship.

Crunched up as I was like a Roly-Poly bug in my bed, I started reading Jamie’s book at 11:00 AM. I read it while sipping the cup of chamomile tea my kind husband brought me. I read it when I began to feel well enough to sit up and lean against the headboard. I continued reading it after nibbling a light dinner, and even skipped watching the Netflix show I’d been binging on so I could keep turning pages. I couldn’t not read it I was so caught up.

I finished it that night.

I was surprised—and ineffably relieved—by how much I enjoyed the book. There was no didactic Sunday School flogging. Instead, Jamie deftly and humorously weaved Christian narratives through her own adventures and misadventures with the lyrical grace of a folklorist. A whole lot of women in a whole lot of books have spilt their procreative beans, but Jamie’s voice, cadence, and craft made for a drama that kept me on edge, guessing, wishing, laughing, crying, and, yes, sometimes even praying, along with her.

After I finished the book, I stared at the snapshot of Jamie, her husband, Jody, and their three children she’d inserted into the book. I smiled, turned out the light, and kept the image of those five shining faces behind my eyes until I finally fell asleep. The next morning I thumbtacked the photo to my bulletin board.

family

Now, whenever I need a moment of grace, all I have to do is glance to my left.

 

 

 

 

Listen

 

KMS8623I am not a woman,

invisible

I am women,

indivisible.

I have a face, although you don’t

see my face. 

“Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

I have a face.

I have a voice.

Hear me roar. Better yet, come 

closer

and hear me whisper. For my screams

you blithely ignore, as though they are

inconsequential laments from a baby

not your own.

 

Okay.

It will be my whispers then;

the runty sounds 

that turn inside my head

like a Ferris wheel in the distant dark.

Whispers shall carry us through

to the day you stop scorching our souls with the

party-line precepts stowed securely

in your breast pocket.

Your right hand pats them once, twice,

then rests solemnly as you pledge allegiance

to the hatred and subversion you married.

Pat

Pat

I watched as you anchored your beliefs to

this totem of power

this phallus

this fallacy

then chose to back away from the moral ledge.

 

Whispers

between friends, words spoken through clouds 

of outrage, but uttered nonetheless, shared with 

Marina and Anne, Topaz, Meg, Lori and Susan

Monica and Kelley.

A match has been lit. Held in the

whispers of Jenny and Deby

and Aimee and Judy.

 

You haven’t heard us yet, have you?

Because we’ve been whispering.

What do you think a million angry whispers

sound like when uttered

in a small wood-paneled room?

Imagine it.

Go ahead.

A whisper from one woman who spoke her truth

should have been enough

should have been more than enough

to set your world ablaze.

No matter.

We are here now, full, on fire,

ready to burn down your injustices like

flames ripping through fields of drought-dried wheat.

 

We’re here now

whispering amongst ourselves.

Listen.

Walking to end ALZ

Image result for alz walk

Not that I expect it to end anytime soon, but I will participate in an ALZ fundraiser at Shelburne Museum this coming Sunday to honor my mother and the millions of other folks who suffer from this horrible disease. Click HERE to see my personal page.

 

 

The CIA and Me

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While living in Seattle in the 80s, I applied to the CIA’s career training program. In retrospect I have no idea why I would have pursued such a vocation, but just now, while going through some old file folders, I found the cover letter I sent them.

Was it because I’d recently dropped out of graduate school or because I was bored with my administrative job at a student loan association that I applied? Maybe it was due to the fact that I’d just had my heart broken by a muscular blond ski god named Rob. Or, it could have simply been because I was adven.jpga restless thirty-one-year old woman hoping to find a new adventure.

(And that’s changed, how?)

I honestly don’t know what could have spurred such a crazy act, but here I am, twenty-six years later, laughing at this obnoxiously boastful, but mildly amusing tome.

Sirs,

For my doctorate degree in environmental anthropology, my plan was to research how grassroots organizations function under an authoritarian regime. I became a finalist for a Fulbright Scholarship and starting packing for my move to Poland. This was 1988, the year Communism crumbled, which, unfortunately caused the Fulbright Committee, at the last minute, to deem my topic moot.

Although I did not earn a PhD, I have vowed not to let three years of Soviet and Eastern bloc studies; a fierce desire to work overseas; and thirty-one years of life experience be put to rest as well. I know that working for the Central Intelligence Agency would be the pinnacle for that goal.

I have an excellent academic background. I have a BA in biology, with a minor in theater arts, and an MA in anthropology. From the natural sciences I learned the rigors of hard data gathering and analysis. The social sciences taught me that it is possible to forge observations with amorphous scientific models. I have enclosed my master’s thesis as proof of both my research acuity and writing strength.

Concomitant to my academic accomplishments, I possess an eclectic accumulation of professional and personal experiences.  I have over three years’ business experience. I know the budgeting, sales, and marketing aspects of profit and not-for-profit operations. Salient among my achievements, I designed, instituted, and managed a medical sales program for a health maintenance organization (HMO) in San Diego, California. And, as a consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency, I marketed a successful recycling program for Region 10 employees.

But there are many more colors and shapes that make up the collage of any individual.

When I was twenty-three, I traveled alone through nine western European countries for four months. Presently, I can say “Hello,” and “one coffee please” in nine languages.

I was on the sailing team in college, backpacked throughout the Cascades, rafted raging rivers, and taught photography and creative writing to eight year olds. I have danced in ballets, acted and directed in the theater, and was an extra in the movie “Peggy Sue Got Married” and “Northern Exposure,” the television series.      

If the CIA offers adventure, I welcome it.           

I am charming, allowing for occasional bursts of self-conscious humility.          

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I cut up frozen fish for hours at a stretch and helped force-feed it to abandoned seal pups. As a clown, I’ve brought a lot of joy to developmentally disabled children.           

I am healthy, honest, and a great cook.           

I am a hard worker, a quick study, and a compassionate team player. I am an independent thinker with an incurable attention to detail; I cannot get bogged down by paper work.           Image result for omg please

I wish to preserve democracy everywhere by being part of the Central Intelligence Agency’s team. Thank you for your consideration and I hope to hear from you soon.

 
I never did hear from them.

Good thing.